All in a Day’s Work

June 4, 2011 by Raffe Gold
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President Obama’s speech to the Arab world caused ripples throughout the region. Sprinkled amongst some pro-Israel statements, thrown in for their balance and to show him as even-handed, such as “Hamas is not a viable partner for peace, Israel is a Jewish state contained one little addendum: Israel must withdraw to the pre-1967 borders.

Raffe Gold

This was immediately refuted by Israel in a statement that demanded the President recognise the facts on the ground. Such a border shift would leave Israel with an indefensible border 9 miles wide. However there was nothing new in the President’s speech. The 1967 border has been a basis for a Palestinian state since the 2000 Camp David Peace Accords. Prime Ministers Barak, Sharon and Olmert have all agreed, in one form or another, to withdraw from the land and redraw the borders as per Israel’s security needs with appropriate land-swaps. This is the basis of the 2 State Solution; the internationally recognised peace agreement and almost certainly will be the final result of the peace effort. If Bibi Netanyahu knew all this why did he decide to lambast President Obama and school him in the intricacies of the Middle East conflict…..in his own office and in front of the world media?

Well there are a few answers to that question. The first is the obvious one: Bibi needed to secure his wavering coalition at home. With Bibi seen as lurching too far to the left many of those on whom he relies on in order to stay in power could doubt his commitment to their various causes. He has managed not only to win over any of those who were harbouring doubts but also the more dovish members of his coalition, such as Ehud Barak, supported his statement. Second: Bibi needed to boost his popularity within Israel. It is not a fun job being a politician in Israel. Theirs is one of the most hated professions within this country and one of the least trusted public institutions with 72% of respondents having no trust in the country’s political parties according to the 2010 Israeli Democracy Index (this does not include the office of the President which has a 70% approval rating according to the IDI). Bibi himself, prior to the trip to America, had an approval rating of 38% which, whilst not historically low (remember Ehud Olmert’s approval rating was at 3% in 2007), could definitely deserve to see a bump….a bump which it received. In the aftermath of Bibi’s Washington history lesson his approval rating jumped to 51%. But this also has to do with answer number three. Israeli’s don’t like Barack Obama. It’s true. Israeli’s are divided on a lot of things. Religion, defence, who should be our representative at the Eurovision Song Contest, but on one thing they are almost unanimous…..there’s not a lot of love for the US President in this country. His current approval rating in Israel is 12% (which has slightly improved from 9%) and many Israeli’s are insulted that he undertook trips to the Middle East yet failed to stop by Israel. They are unsure of his world-view regarding the Middle East considering some of his past acquaintances and despite him attempting to stack his administration with pro-Israel figures such as Rahm Emanuel and Dennis Ross they fear Obama’s sympathies lie with the Palestinians.

Israeli’s fear the direction that his foreign policy has taken. He was quiet in the face of the slaughtering of Iranian protesters yet loudly denounced Israeli settlement building. In his 2009 Cairo speech he drew a comparison between the suffering of the Palestinians and the Holocaust and he humiliated Netanyahu in a previous visit to the White House by forcing a Prime Minister to use a servant’s entrance. Many Israeli’s may not approve of our Premier but to humiliate an ally is unforgivable.

The final reason that Netanyahu chose to school the President is that he was wrong. President Obama is a very smart man who uses language as a surgeon uses a scalpel. He is precise and knows what he’s saying, when he’s saying it. But he has little understanding of haggling. In the Middle East everyone haggles. Remember the memorable scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian where the shopkeeper teachers Brian the art of haggling? This haggling is played out daily in Shuks throughout the region. Each side leaves thinking that they have made a good deal. The customer is happy because he has beaten the shopkeeper down on the marked price and the shopkeeper is happy because in reality he has made a few shekels of profit. This is the process that is guiding the (almost certainly secret) negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. What President Obama did was spell out that Israel MUST withdraw to the 1967 borders. This undercuts Israel’s ability to negotiate and undermines Israel’s ability to haggle with the Palestinians. By destabilizing Israel’s negotiation tactics Obama has ensured that Israel’s position is fundamentally weakened in any of the discussion processes on the issue of borders, a core aspect of a future peace deal. This was dangerously irresponsible of the American President and it is impossible to ascertain the damage that has been caused to the negotiation process by such an amateurish move by the world’s most powerful leader. It was because of these reasons that Bibi found it necessary to reaffirm his country’s position. He did it publically and he did it powerfully; in essence he acted like the leader of a country. In one fell swoop he managed to secure his government’s negotiating position, raise his personal popularity, establish a new and tougher attitude towards Israel’s enemies and raise Israel’s chance at negotiating a peace deal. It was a good trip for Prime Minister Netanyahu.

 

Comments

One Response to “All in a Day’s Work”
  1. Roslyn Heywood says:

    How refreshing. An objective insight. Add to this the perception that Israel’s current Prime Minister, Hon. Benjamin Netanyahu works from a deep seated passion for the Jewish state of Israel and all her people and you have some of the ingredients required for what is known as ‘greatness’ .

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